The Cost of True Riches (or The Cost of Discipleship…but that’s Already Taken)

As per my usual custom, I was perusing the daily newspapers the other morning. Whilst doing so, I happened upon a very interesting article in The Age. It reported that the creator of the 1960s-set drama, Mad Men, had forked out $250,000 for use of a Beatles’ song, Tomorrow Never Knows. According to the creator, “…the show lacked a certain authenticity…” because he had never been able to use a master recording of the Beatles. So, his solution was to spend a quarter of a million dollars for the privilege (see “Mad Men Pays $250,000 for Beatles Song,” The Age, 9th May, 2012).

It’s a mind-boggling amount of money, simply for a few minutes of music. But my point is not to focus on an apparent case of financial profligacy. Of course, we may baulk at the thought of spending that much on something as ephemeral as a few bars from a pop-song. Others, though, may see this as a wise investment. Arguments of this ilk are, in many ways, beside the point. It seems to me that the story is instructive for a very different reason. This peculiar little story can actually offer followers of Jesus a model, or metaphor, for the nature and cost of Christian discipleship. The costly efforts of the Mad Men creator to secure something he saw as absolutely indispensable to his creation should stimulate our thinking about how much Christians are willing to part with in order to reach that which is most precious. In order to perfect his show, to better it – to authenticate it – the creator (and the producers, no doubt) was willing to spend a small fortune on something relatively small.

How much more, then, should Christians reflect on the value placed upon, say, intimacy with Christ, and the consequent costs that are involved in securing that intimacy? Only if Christians are willing to pay the price for an authentic life of discipleship will they actually receive it. To be sure, intimacy with Christ is a gracious gift. The act of the dying, triumphant God, who opened up the possibility of salvation for those fashioned in his image, is something that cannot be earned or extracted. It is grounded in the free act of the One who is eminently free. However, this gift is not without cost. Indeed, salvation may be free, but it is expensive. It costs a lot, and entails much sacrifice: for the God who offered himself for his sinful image-bearers; and for those image-bearers who, by the Spirit, have given themselves to him in return. This is the hard road of discipleship and progressive sanctification, as Christians live out their declared separation from sin and under God’s reign. No claim regarding the Christian life that posits anything less can truly be known as such. Christian authenticity is none other than the reality of Christ’s life in the life of an individual; and given that this reality can only come about as the individual takes a resolute, lifelong stand against everything that would mar Christ’s image in him, Christians ought to reflect soberly on how costly that can be.

The New Testament has much to say about the costliness of true discipleship – about the sacrifice that Christian authenticity entails. Against the backdrop of God’s gracious provision of salvation through Christ, the authors of the NT write frequently of how much it takes to walk the narrow road. Cheap grace is not to be found in its pages; nor is an antinomian attitude countenanced. For once it is recognized that the chief obstacle between the Christian and intimacy with Christ is the constant predation of sin, the struggle against it takes on new, almost cosmic, meaning. The Apostle Paul, for example, spoke of putting to death the sinful nature (cf. Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:24). That is a striking image: death. Christians are called, not to reason with the sinful nature, or to simply oppose it (though that is certainly true). They’re to put to death, so to speak. Paul uses the chilling finality of a person’s demise as a way of getting at the attitude Christians should have towards sin. In the pursuit of authentic discipleship, followers of Christ are to ruthlessly and completely separate themselves from its pernicious effects.

But Paul is not the only NT writer to speak about the struggle for holiness, the cost of discipleship, and the conflict against sin. The evangelists, who recorded the words and deeds of Jesus, included in their works sayings that point to the importance, nay the utter urgency, of pursuing that which is godly. Let’s look at one particular passage: Matthew 6:19-24. It occurs in the midst of Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount, where he offered a kind of new covenant charter to the disciples that had gathered around him and received his ministry. In this passage, Jesus commands his followers not to store up earthly treasures for themselves. Instead, he counsels them to store up heavenly treasures (v.20) that cannot be harmed, followed by the conclusive statement that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v.21).

The creator of Mad Men, obviously devoted to his work, is a perfect reflection (albeit in a rather perverse way) of the general thrust of Jesus’ words in verse 21; indeed, one might even say that his heart – the centre of who he is – lies with his creative endeavours. That forms the background to what might seem to be an extreme act. Jesus’ pithy statement rings true, regardless of context, for one’s life will be devoted to what one considers most valuable, such that one will offer everything for it. The question for those who claim to value Christ above all need to reflect upon where their hearts are set, and just what their treasure is. A person “cannot serve two masters” (6:24); devotion to God cannot be tempered by devotion to something else. As such, authentic Christian living – living that is genuinely and transparently Christ-like – will not admit such admixture.

Intimacy with Christ, and the life that is transformed accordingly, is one that demands the complete devotion of the person who benefits from it. Again, we may look to Jesus himself to shed light on this. Matthew 13:44-46 has him likening the kingdom of heaven (God) to both treasure and fine pearls. They conjure up images of objects prized and valuable. Like them, the kingdom is something to be treasured; and, like the ones pursing them in Jesus’ parable, those who claim to follow him are to “sell everything” for it. In order that true Christian discipleship may flourish, a resolute willingness to sacrifice everything for it needs to sit firmly within the Christian’s heart. Whereas Paul uses the image of death as a way of characterizing the extent to which Christians ought to pursue God and the holy life, Jesus here puts it in terms of payment. Either way, the point is clear: Christian discipleship is a life marked by the kind of total sacrifice that is itself grounded in the knowledge that what is being received is of infinite value. It cannot be otherwise. It means taking up one’s cross, dying to sin and declaring exclusive allegiance to the One in whose image we are made and to whose likeness we are being conformed. It means giving everything – up to, and including, ourselves – in order to secure something far more valuable. The late John Stott, in writing of the Christian’s struggle against the sinful nature, said this:

“Self-denial…is actually denying or disowning ourselves, renouncing our supposed right to go our own way” (“The Cross of Christ”, p.323).

Quite so. The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said that when “Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”, and in many ways, it is true. Having been bought at the price of Christ’s death, we must recapitulate that death in our lives so that we might obtain true life. Indeed, we are to “put to death” the sinful nature (borrowing from Paul). Of course, that is the case for all those who are in Christ, for death is the final stage of sin’s rule. Nevertheless, discipleship in this life demands a thousand daily “deaths” to self, to the pride, to sin. Only as that happens can we truly say that we are members of God’s kingdom. Denying the sinful nature and taking hold of God’s kingdom, therefore, are two sides of the same coin. Or, to put it slightly differently, everything that I have mentioned in this essay – intimacy with Christ, the pursuit of holiness, authentic discipleship, and devotion to God – are of a piece; you cannot have one without all the others. It’s a packaged gift. As I said earlier, it’s a gloriously free gift. However, an authentic Christian life, even more so than an authentic TV program, costs everything. 

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